For two thousand years, the story of the vineyard workers in the Gospel of Matthew has confronted its hearers with an implicit question: Is God fair in the way we expect him to be?
The parable (Matthew 20:1-15 NKJV) tells of a landowner who hires laborers and sends them into his vineyard. He gathers men all day until “the eleventh hour” (v. 6), when he discovers a group of idlers and commands them to work for him with the promise that “whatever is right you will receive” (v. 7). At sunset the laborers come to get their wages. The “eleventh hour” group receives one denarius, a Roman silver coin worth about fifteen cents, the typical pay for one day’s work. The first hour’s group expects a greater reward, but they are given the same. When they complain to the owner about this inequity, he dismisses their demands. “Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as you” (v. 14).
Clearly Jesus was not teaching an economics course on how businesses should salary their employees. He used the story to attack a lie many of us believe without realizing it: we think the nature of our choices and actions is what makes God’s love for us possible.
How often have you viewed a bad day—inconvenient weather, unproductive work, illness or exhaustion, arguments, moral regrets—to be a manifestation of God’s retribution for your wrongdoing? God loved me less today, we tell ourselves, usually unconsciously. I’ve got to do better. The opposite applies, too. When we work “in the heat of the day” (v. 12), when we feel proud about a commendable choice, we’re more willing to feel God’s love for us. I really earned it today, we think. I can feel good. Everything’s okay with me and God.
When we follow this attitude, we submit to legalism—the ledger balancing the accounts of our right and wrong actions to see what we’re worth to God. We deceive ourselves and deny the contentment that grace can bring us. “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins…who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3 NIV). No human alive could ever claim God owed him a blessing. Likewise, it’s impossible to argue with God’s right to give us more than we’ve earned.
So don’t yield to the superstitious ups and downs of legalism. Forget about complaining that “these last men have worked only one hour” (Mt. 20:12 NKJV) when you think you deserve better. Refuse to feel suspicious when God opens “the windows of heaven” (Malachi 3:10) and gives you far more than you could ever hope to repay. He allows the hard days for his purposes. He gives us free gifts to remind us he’s good. He’s not just impartial; he’s radically fair. No matter our inadequacies or how persistently we do good things, our outcome still hinges on our answer to his most important question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15)
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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